Pitman with Gibson ES-330 guitar, 2012.
|Birth name||William Keith Pitman|
February 12, 1920 |
Belleville, New Jersey, United States
|Genres||Jazz, rock, pop|
As a first-call studio musician working in Los Angeles, Pitman played on some of the most celebrated and influential records of the rock and roll era. His mastery of the guitar placed him in high demand for popular music recordings, television programs, and film scores. The style and range of his playing covered a wide spectrum, from the distinctive ukulele in the Academy Award winning song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," to a rich sounding Danelectro guitar that gave The Wild Wild West its unique musical signature.
Pitman developed an interest in music at a young age when his father worked as a bass player on staff at NBC in Rockefeller Center. During the Great Depression, Pitman's father was able to make a very good living doing freelance work, radio shows, and movie soundtracks all while still employed at the network.
When he was five years old, Pitman knew he wanted to be a musician. He tried several different instruments, including the piano and trumpet, before finally settling on the guitar. Lessons from John Cali and Allan Reuss taught him fundamentals and technique on the first guitar he ever owned, a D'Angelico. When it came time to apply for his Local 802 union card, he had no trouble passing the test before they recognized his name and said, "Oh, Keith Pitman's son. Well okay."
While in high school, Pitman went up to 52nd Street in Manhattan to listen to jazz pioneers like Charlie Parker. Pitman was strongly influenced by guitarists Charlie Christian and Eddie Lang, and soon befriended Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, and Eddie Bert, with whom he spent countless hours playing music.
After serving in World War II, Pitman headed west to California where he attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts. He then devoted his efforts to practicing the guitar and reading music. Guitar books geared toward reading music were virtually non-existent at the time, so Pitman used books for other instruments to acquire his sight reading skills. Oboe books were especially prized because they described the same range as the guitar.
By 1951, Pitman had grown confident that he could play as well as many of the guitarists in the jazz clubs of Los Angeles. While visiting a nightclub where Peggy Lee was performing, Pitman struck up a conversation with guitar virtuoso Laurindo Almeida, who was playing in her band. Their talk led to an audition, landing Pitman a job with Lee that launched his professional music career.
After three years with Peggy Lee's band, Pitman accepted an offer to play on a radio program called The Rusty Draper Show. His three-year stint on that broadcast led to studio work when guitar player Tony Rizzi asked Pitman to sit in for him on a Capitol Records date. As word got around, musicians like Howard Roberts, Al Hendrickson, and Bob Bain would ask Pitman to play on sessions they were unable to attend. Eventually, the referrals led to producers calling Pitman directly to fill a guitar chair, resulting in lucrative studio work that would last for decades.
During the latter part of the 1950s, Pitman sat in on sessions for established recording artists like Mel Tormé, Buddy Rich, and Red Callender. However, rock and roll was gaining popularity, and a chance encounter with Phil Spector placed Pitman among the earliest members of an élite group of session players.
In 1957, Bertha Spector asked Pitman if he would teach her son how to play jazz guitar. After three months of lessons, young Phil Spector continued to struggle with the concept of meter, leading both student and teacher to conclude that Phil was probably not cut out to be a musician.
The following year, Spector cut a demo for a song he had written, and then asked Pitman if he would play it for his colleagues on The Rusty Draper Show. The song, called "To Know Him Is to Love Him," generated considerable interest, and was eventually financed. Shortly thereafter, Pitman received a call from one of Spector’s representatives asking him to play on a recording session for the song at Gold Star Studios. The record became a huge hit, causing Pitman to be invited to all future Phil Spector recording dates. Indeed, when Spector produced the enormously popular record "Be My Baby" in 1963, he named the jam session on the flip side "Tedesco and Pitman," after two of his favorite guitar players: Tommy Tedesco and Bill Pitman.
Given the popularity of Spector's records, Pitman and the other musicians who created the Wall of Sound became the first choice of nearly every major record label in Los Angeles. Hal Blaine would later call this group The Wrecking Crew, and their anonymous talents accompanied musical artists from The Beach Boys to Frank Sinatra.
When Columbia Records decided to take a gamble on a new band called The Byrds, they insisted on seasoned musicians being brought in to record the instrumental tracks for the first single. Consequently, the men who joined Roger McGuinn in CBS Columbia Square on January 20, 1965 were not members of The Byrds, but session players Larry Knechtel, Hal Blaine, Jerry Cole, Leon Russell, and Bill Pitman. In three hours they recorded two songs, one of which, "Mr. Tambourine Man," became a sensation.
Pitman worked as a freelance musician, employing an answering service to help him schedule recording dates. Studios covered the cost of cartage, an important perquisite considering the number of instruments and ancillary gear needed to meet the eclectic demands of music producers. The frenetic pace of studio work left very little time for live performances or writing. During one year, Pitman logged an astonishing 425 recording sessions, many of which resulted in multiple sides.
When union rules were pushed beyond their limits, either Tommy Tedesco or Bill Pitman would raise the issue of overtime—to the consternation of producers, and commensurate delight of other musicians. Their salty adherence to fair treatment led to Tedesco being called King Salt, and Pitman getting the nickname Junior Salt. As Pitman said in a 2002 interview, “if King Salt wouldn’t say something, Junior Salt certainly would.”
Despite his contributions to chart-topping records by The Mamas & the Papas, The Everly Brothers, and Jan and Dean, Pitman found the rock music he was asked to play unmemorable; expressing genuine surprise when some of the tunes became wildly successful. Producers jokingly claimed that if Pitman thought a record was terrible, they probably had a hit on their hands.
The indifference Pitman felt toward rock and roll was more than matched by an enthusiasm for jazz recording sessions led by composers and arrangers such as Marty Paich, Dave Grusin, and Johnny Mandel. Pitman derived a great deal of satisfaction from the technical demands of jazz and its complex array of harmonic changes and improvised solos. His playing on The Guitars Inc. and Marty Paich's Dek-Tette albums eclipsed, on a personal level, anything he ever did on a Top 40 record.
Long hours in Hollywood recording studios were primarily focused on performance, precluding other musical work. Notwithstanding the constraints, Pitman wrote a couple of arrangements for Buddy DeFranco, and a stack of charts for a short-lived octet he put together with Buddy Childers. He also earned composition credits for a few episodes of the original Star Trek series; a pair of jazz tunes ("Sidewinder" and "Pitfall") on the 1956 release Marty Paich Quartet featuring Art Pepper; and a beautifully improvised tune called "San Fernando" that producers needed to fill out a 1968 album titled Do You Know the Way to San Jose by the Baja Marimba Band. Nevertheless, his enduring legacy is one of an accomplished guitarist who played on some of the twentieth century's most popular recordings.
Pitman's main studio guitar was the Gibson ES-335 with a Polytone amplifier. On some of the rock and roll records, he used a Fender Telecaster with a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier. Other instruments included a twelve-string guitar, Fender bass, Gibson mandolin, and a Bacon tenor banjo. Pitman tuned the mandolin and banjo like a guitar, and was careful to warn producers that he could only play those two instruments in the guitar range.
I'm not a mandolin player. I'd tell them I could double on it, but if they really wanted someone to play the mandolin, they should get a mandolin player. I could play rhythm on it, and even notes, but I always made it clear that I was a guitar player. But we all had five or six instruments because they didn't want to spend the money. And they'd get a lot out of one guy.
— Bill Pitman, Interview with Jim Carlton
The Danelectro guitar work for which Pitman became famous started when he saw the instrument at a music shop shortly after its introduction. His practicing caught the attention of Ernie Freeman who asked him to play the Dano on a recording date. The success of that session eventually led to his playing the Dano on The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, and provided him with five years of recording work on the television program The Wild Wild West. Following his discovery of the Danelectro, Pitman estimates that he played the instrument roughly forty per cent of the time for the rest of his studio career.
Pitman lives in La Quinta, California with his wife Jan, to whom he has been married for 29 years. He spends his retirement playing golf at the local country club, and occasionally participates in panel discussions of The Wrecking Crew documentary film.
- Southern Breeze (Jeri Southern with Marty Paich's Dek-Tette)
- Invitation (The Guitars Inc.)
- Guitars at Christmas (The Guitars Inc.)
- Whatever’s Fair! (Howard Roberts)
- Guilty! (Howard Roberts)
- "The Lonely Bull" (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass)
- "A Taste of Honey" (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass)
- "San Fernando" (Baja Marimba Band)
- "Good Vibrations" (The Beach Boys)
- "Mr. Tambourine Man" (The Byrds)
- "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena" (Jan and Dean)
- "Surf City" (Jan and Dean)
- "Outer Limits" (The Marketts)
- "The Lonely Surfer" (Jack Nitzsche)
- "Hey Little Cobra" (The Rip Chords)
- "Be My Baby" (The Ronettes)
- "Let's Go (Pony)" (The Routers)
- "Strangers in the Night" (Frank Sinatra)
- "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" (Nancy Sinatra)
- "Deep Purple" (Nino Tempo & April Stevens)
- "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" (Bobby Vee)
- Blue Hawaii (1961)
- Torn Curtain (1966)
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
- Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
- Paint Your Wagon (1969)
- M*A*S*H (1970)
- The Omega Man (1971)
- The Parallax View (1974)
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
- Dirty Dancing (1987)
- Goodfellas (1990)
- Bonanza (1959)
- The Deputy (1959)
- The Wild Wild West (1965)
- The Roger Miller Show (1966)
- Ironside (1967)
- Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968)
- Adam-12 (1968)
- The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (1969)
- The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour (1971)
- Pitman, Bill; Almeida, Laurindo; Heitmeyer, Howard; Hendrickson, Al; Kessel, Barney; Bain, Bob; Marshall, Jack; Roberts, Howard (1961). West Coast Guitar: Eight Original Solos for Guitar. New York: Leeds Music Corporation. ASIN B0080YPG16.
- Pitman, Bill (1972). Jazz Guitar Phrases and Solos. Gwyn Publishing Company. ASIN B007RY77W6.
- Pitman, Bill (1972). Modern Preludes for Guitar. Gwyn Publishing Company. OCLC 42232027.
- Carlton, Jim (Summer 2007). "Studio Savant: A conversation with guitarist Bill Pitman". The Fretboard Journal (Occasional Publishing, Inc.) 6: 26–33. ISSN 1558-0326.
- Carlton, Jim (2009). Conversations with Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists. Mel Bay Publications. pp. 67–86. ISBN 978-0786651238.
- "Bill Pitman Credits". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 14 November 2012.
- Hartman, Kent (2012). The Wrecking Crew. Thomas Dunne Books. pp. 35–42. ISBN 978-0312619749.
- Marcus, Jeff (6 November 2011). "The Wrecking Crew left its musical mark on pop culture". Goldmine. Retrieved 30 June 2012.
- McGuinn, Roger (18 April 2012). Talk of the Nation. Interview with Neil Conan. National Public Radio. Retrieved 30 June 2012. "Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Jerry Cole, Larry Knechtel and Bill Pitman were in the studio at the time. And they were the coolest guys. They were like James Dean. You know, they wore black leather jackets with the collar up and very cool. I was honored. And they were so tight. I mean, you could really not get anything between the beats. You know, it was really solid, solid music."
- "Julius Wechter and the Baja Marimba Band". Discogs. Retrieved 30 June 2012.
- "Interview with Brian Wilson". AlbumLinerNotes.com. Retrieved 30 June 2012.
- "Master of the Dano". The Wrecking Crew Outtake Theater. The Wrecking Crew. Retrieved 30 June 2012.
- "Phonograph Recording Contracts" (PDF). The Wrecking Crew. American Federation of Musicians. Retrieved 10 October 2013.